A woman and her son are safe after a close call at Port Sydney Falls on Tuesday, and it’s all thanks to the quick thinking of two boys, just nine and 11 years old.
North York resident Maggie Chen was travelling up to Algonquin Park on Aug. 30 with her two sons and her friend’s family when they decided to stop at Port Sydney Falls along the way. It was meant to be a quick stopover, but after losing their keys, they ended up sticking around for longer than expected. Meanwhile, cottager Melissa Paiuk took her daughter Katelyn, her son Cole and Cole’s friend Thomas Webber to the falls for a day of late summer fun. The boys brought along a tube in hopes of sliding down the natural chute created by the falls, but they quickly decided that it wouldn’t be safe.
“When we got there, we felt that the water was really strong, so I said to them just to kind of play at the bottom because I didn’t feel comfortable with them going down from the top,” Melissa said. “There was just too much water.”
Melissa and Katelyn were hanging out on the rocks while the boys put on their life jackets and played at the bottom of the falls. They noticed Chen, her friend and their kids playing at the edge of the water, and when the two boys took a break from their swim, the situation took a turn for the worse.
Chen’s 10-year-old son was in the shallow water when he started getting carried away by the current. Chen went in after him, but between slippery rocks and fast-moving water, she soon lost her balance and found herself floating past him. She was struggling to keep her head above water when Cole and Webber ran over to help.
They started by throwing Chen a life jacket, but when she disappeared under the surface of the water, Cole swam out to her and handed it directly to her. Since she isn’t a strong swimmer and her clothes were soaked through with the weight of the water, Chen clutched Cole with one hand and the life jacket with the other while they struggled to swim back to shore.
“I was drowning and suddenly the boy, Cole, [was] just there and held my hand and then he told me, ‘Don’t panic,’” Chen said. “Then he asked me to kick.”
As they tried to swim to safety together, they were carried down the river, so Melissa went into the water and helped Cole pull Chen onto the rocks. Having swallowed a great deal of water, Chen was dizzy and started to throw up. Melissa ran to a nearby cottage and called 911 while Webber swam out to Chen’s son, pulled him onto his back and brought him back onto shore with Katelyn’s help.
“I was scared for Cole and the woman because they were going down the river,” Webber said. “I thought she could have died because she was going underwater and drowning. I am happy I saved the boy and the [woman] was okay.”
Once emergency services arrived, Melissa went to collect Webber and the other kids since they ended up on the opposite side of the river. After that, Chen invited them all into the ambulance with her and thanked them profusely for their help.
“When we were in the ambulance, the woman told me I saved her life and her family. It feels good,” Cole said. “I am very happy everyone is safe.”
Mike Vadlja, fire prevention officer for the Huntsville/Lake of Bays Fire Department, said it was fortunate that they were able to perform the rescue successfully, but he urges people to exercise caution when visiting the falls.
“The current at the base of the falls can be very strong and unpredictable at times, especially after some heavy rains and particularly during the spring thaw,” Vadlja said. “It is always recommended that a [personal flotation device] be worn when entering any fast-moving water.”
The peace and beauty of the setting can keep people from realizing the true danger of Port Sydney Falls, Melissa said, and the area has seen its share of incidents. That said, she still can’t believe that two young boys sprang into action the way they did and she’s endlessly proud of them for it.
“They didn’t hesitate to get in the water and help,” Melissa said. “They remained calm and made fast, smart decisions during the rescue. They are heroes.”
Chen and her group didn’t end up making it to Algonquin Park for camping, but the trip, despite being brief, made a profound impression on her. Some of the lingering fear remains, but more than anything, the whole situation reminded her just how valuable life is.
“I cannot express my gratitude to Cole and his mom,” Chen said. “I will never forget that day.”